Covid-19 medical waiver will unlock vaccine production capacity globally

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(Photo by: Rafayat Khan/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
(Photo by: Rafayat Khan/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
  • South Africa and India have proposed to the World Trade Organisation a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19-related medical technologies.
  • However, the waiver on intellectual property is just a first step, countries need to be capacitated with the knowledge and skills to deploy solutions, according to an industry expert.
  • Africa imports about 99% of its vaccines, highlighting the need for the continent to bolster its capacity to manufacture its own.

A waiver on intellectual property (IP) of Covid-19 medical technology is just a first step, countries need to have the technical knowledge and skills to have the capacity to respond to the pandemic, according to an industry expert.

During a BRICS webinar discussion hosted by the Government Communication and Information System on Tuesday, several industry players shared their views on a waiver for certain provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.

The waiver, proposed by South Africa and India to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), would allow countries to effectively prevent, contain and treat Covid-19.

South African Ambassador to the WTO Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, who was one of the panelists, said the waiver had been supported by more than 100 WTO members, including the US.

However, some countries like the UK, Australia and EU as well as some pharmaceutical companies oppose the waiver.

Mlumbi-Peter added the waiver addressed IP barriers in the area of vaccines - as a preventative measure, diagnostics - to detect the virus and therapeutics to treat the virus.

Africa imports about 99% of its vaccines.

"What Covid-19 has revealed is we cannot as Africa rely solely on imports. There is a need to look at how we can produce our own vaccines for our own population."

She said the waiver was in line with the WTO framework.

Notably, the waiver will be temporarily applied for this "unprecedented challenge" in history. This could be for at least three years, or until we reach global immunity.

Mlumbi-Peter added this was not a blanket waiver impacting other aspects of the TRIPS agreement.

"It does not mean we are nullifying all the obligations of the TRIPS agreement. This is a targeted waiver that aims to address only those elements critical to the prevention, treatment and combating of Covid-19."

A shortage of vaccines has been a major constraint, and addressing the IP barriers could potentially unlock productive capacity across the world.

The scope of the waiver covers a number of IP protections, such as patents, industrial designs, copyrights, and protection of undisclosed information.

"All of this is critical. Patents alone are not sufficient. We need trade secrets, we need access to clinical data and all of that is contained in the various IP protections covered," she said.

Mlumbi-Peter shared the views that current bilateral agreements or voluntary licence agreements often came with terms and conditions that limited the amount of vaccines that could be manufactured and geographies to which they could be distributed.

In some cases, voluntary licence agreements are such that some countries could pay more for vaccines than others - as was seen when South Africa paid more for Astra Zeneca than the EU.

"The waiver will take away the risk of having to negotiate on a bilateral basis and being subjected to stringent conditions that are difficult to manage," she said. 

From Thursday, the WTO will enter into further negotiations on the waiver.

A senior executive of strategic trade at Aspen, Dr Stavros Nicolaou, said addressing IP barriers was one step in the equation.

"We need access to technology, the know-how and skills transfers to be unlocked. The real issue for me is to develop regional capacity and capability," added Nicolaou.

He added Africa was not necessarily looking for more money or loans, instead what was needed was technology transfer partnerships and skills training.

Nicolaou stressed the continent needed its own manufacturing hubs that would be able to respond to public health emergencies, and support economic activity.

He said the fact that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) partnered with Aspen as a manufacturer in South Africa demonstrated their confidence in the capabilities on the continent.

Commenting on the two million contaminated J&J vaccines at the Gqeberha's factory that had to be destroyed, Nicolaou added it was a disappointment. "One dose destroyed is one dose too many because you know one dose can save a life."

However, this would not cause too much of a disruption to the South African Covid-19 vaccine rollout, he said. "We will more than compensate for that."

The coordinator of the access IBSA Project in India, Achal Prabhala, noted 20% of the world's rich countries have access to vaccines.

Middle income countries like South Africa have an average income that does not allow them to benefit from charitable or philanthropic vaccine donations like low- to middle-income countries like India do.

As it stands, of poorer nations, only 1% of the populations have access to vaccines through the Covax facility.

In the case they have more than 1%, this was mainly due to deals or donations with China and Russia, Achal Prabhala said.

He added the waiver was essential to change the situation, especially as it addressed the monopolies within the production chain of vaccines.

"If we want to stimulate vaccine production and produce more vaccines, we must consider monopolies at every stage of production which is why we need a comprehensive TRIPS waiver…"

Trying to untangle patents in the production chain could even take years, which is why the waiver is so necessary for the crisis the world is facing.

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